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The South Island's thrill rides

You can saddle up or drive to pristine beaches, mountains and valleys while enjoying summer in winter.

October 22, 2006|Marcy Barack | Special to The Times

Puponga, New Zealand — EXCEPT for a couple of bull seals sunning themselves on the silvery sand, my family had New Zealand's mile-long Wharariki Beach to ourselves.

The unclouded sky paled at the horizon over dark blue water lined with cresting rollers. Retreating waves molded the sand into a wet mirror that reflected the sky, the seals, the Archway Islands offshore, me and my three grown children on horseback.

The kids took off ahead of me, whooping and hollering as their horses pounded through the surf. I held back my steed, Sultan, to drink in the scene, delaying gratification for one more exquisite moment. Then I let him go. Hoofs drumming on the sand, wind whipping my face, we raced to catch up with the others.

The thrill lasted all of 30 seconds. That's when the rocks at the end of the beach loomed large, and I started worrying how to halt that headlong rush. Funny, my long-cherished dream of galloping across a tropical beach never included hauling at the reins and screaming, "Whoa!"

The ride was one of the first activities I booked online when my husband, Bill, and I decided to take our son Owen, 23, and daughter, Amanda, 17, to New Zealand in December, at the start of the Southern Hemisphere's summer. Our excuse for traveling around the globe from our home in Maine was to pick up Justin, our 21-year-old son, after his semester abroad in Christchurch. Midway through our adventure-packed, two-week trip, we planned to relax on the beaches at the northern tip of the South Island.

So we set off for Abel Tasman National Park, apparently just like thousands of other tourists. Abel Tasman is the smallest national park in New Zealand -- only 87 square miles -- yet it attracts the most visitors -- about 200,000 annually.

After swimming with the seals of Tonga Island, we lunched on Onetahuti Beach, one of a string of sandy crescents arcing up the jungled coastline. It was filled with hikers tramping Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of the nine Great Walks that lead through some of the country's best scenery; swimmers stripping off snorkels, masks and fins; and kayakers stretched out in the sun next to their slender plastic boats. A succession of seagoing taxis dropped off fresh adventurers and picked up tired campers along with their gear, hauling the kayaks onto the stern of the taxis.

We were glad to leave the rush hour behind as we headed up the only road that leads to Golden Bay. For 16 miles, it zigs and zags 365 times up and down the 2,600-foot-high summit of Takaka Hill.

From a roadside lookout at the top of the hill, you can see the Takaka River draining northeast into Golden Bay. Herds of cattle, sheep and deer graze the lush valley between Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Park, site of another great walk, the Heaphy Track.

Our first night in Takaka, the main town on Golden Bay, we had a spacious suite at the economical Anatoki Lodge, a motel on the main drag, Commercial Street. While stocking up at the local grocery store, we were surprised when the Takaka Volunteer Band marched into the parking lot. Led by a blond drum major, about 20 musicians in gold-braided blue uniforms played carols and performed again at dinnertime from a pocket park across from the Wholemeal Cafe.

Judging from the crowded bulletin boards at the entrance to the cafe, much of the action in Takaka seems to take place in the nearly 100-year-old theater building. My kids went back later that night to dance to a dreadlocked reggae band.

We got up early to reach Cape Farewell Horse Treks in time to beat the tide to Wharariki (pronounced Fah-rah-ree-kee) Beach. The outfitters, Gail and Don McKnight, raised three daughters on their spread in Puponga, at the entrance to Cape Farewell, the northernmost tip of the South Island. The McKnights call it "the most beautiful place in New Zealand." Sheep pastures and forest mingle above hidden beaches and steep cliffs overlooking the sea.

After I introduced my kids, Gail said proudly, "These are my boys," leading us to her lively, well-mannered horses.

She missed her calling as a psychologist. After spending a few minutes observing my children and how they handled their mounts, Gail pegged each with a one-sentence analysis that was spot-on.

As my first-born kicked his horse into a canter out of sight up the road, she said, "He doesn't think, just dares and damns the consequences."

Then she nodded at my middle child, gently urging his mount forward after his brother. "He's the thinker," she said, "more cautious about things."

"Wait up," called my daughter, trotting after her brothers.

Gail smiled, saying "She's got a bit of both in her."

Her instant insight matched my two decades of mothering those kids.

It took nearly an hour to clear the verdant hills and descend to Wharariki Beach, which is accessible only at low tide. Gail took photos with our cameras, then turned us loose. After our wild gallop, we tethered our horses to explore rock tunnels, arches and caves on foot.

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